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7 Sep, 2003

NYT Journalist’s Book Questions Rationale Behind the “War on Terror”

Originally Published: 7 Sept 2003

The anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon is set to be seared in the annual calendar of memorials. As timing is everything, last week’s clockwork release of tapes recalling the panic, anguish and suffering of the victims, made sure of that.

Sadly, no tapes exist to recall the suffering of innocent Iraqis and Afghans who have since been bombed to bits in the eye-for-an-eye retaliation. In fact, no-one even knows how many of them died — or were left orphaned, homeless and maimed by mega-explosives bearing artful and deceptively innocuous names like “bunker-buster”, “cluster” and “daisy-cutter”.

At around the same time the 9/11 tapes were released, an American friend now living in Chiang Mai sent me a copy of a book, “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.” A simple note from him exhorted me to “read and weep.”

Authored by New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges, a member of the 2002 NYT team that won a Pulitzer for the coverage of global terrorism, the book is about the deep, sickening impact of war on the human psyche.

Says Hedges: “I have been in ambushes on desolate stretches of Central American roads, shot at in the marshes of southern Iraq, imprisoned in the Sudan, beaten by Saudi military police, deported from Libya and Iran, captured and held for a week by Iraqi Republican Guard during the Shiite rebellion following the Gulf war, strafed by Russian Mig-21s in Bosnia, fired upon by Serb snipers and shelled for days in Sarajevo with deafening rounds of heavy artillery that threw out thousands of deadly bits if iron fragments.

“I have seen too much of violent death. I have tasted too much of my own fear. I have painful memories that lie buried and untouched most of the time. It is never easy when they surface.”

Yet, Hedges has forced these memories to the surface and converted them into brilliant prose that hauntingly describes the round-eyed ignorance of the pawns in the line of fire and the merciless, unquenchable thirst for power of those who send them there.

At a time when war and conflict has become a daily diet, I though I would review the book, but it’s actually best reviewed in its own words. Here are some choice passages, many of which were underlined by my Chiang Mai friend:

In a reflection of 9/11, Hedges writes: “We mourn the victims of the World Trade Center attack. Their pictures cover subway walls. We mourn the firefighters, as well we should. But we are blind to those whom we and our allies in the Middle East have crushed or whose rights have been ignored for decades. They seem not to count.”

Another passage stresses that “the cultivation of victimhood is essential fodder for any conflict. It is studiously crafted by the state. All cultural life is directed to broadcast the injustices out carried out against us. Cultural life soon becomes little more than the drivel of agitprop. The message that the nation is good, the cause just and the war noble is pounded into the heads of citizens in everything from late night talk shows to morning news programmes to films and popular novels. The nation is soon thrown into a trance from which it does not awake until the conflict ends.”

Hedges adds, “While we venerate and mourn own dead, we are curiously indifferent about those we kill. Thus killing is done in our name, killing that concerns us little, while those who kill our own are seen as having crawled out of the deepest recesses of the earth, lacking our own humanity and goodness. Our dead. Their dead. They are not the same. Our dead matter, theirs do not. Many Israelis defend the killing of Palestinian children whose only crime was to throw rocks at armored patrols, while many Palestinians applaud the murder of Israeli children by suicide bombers.”

Hedges is at his best in venting his contempt and loathing for those who make war . Here are some more choice passages:

== War exposes the capacity for evil that lurks not far below the surface within all of us.

== War is an enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble. And those who have the least meaning in their lives, the impoverished refugees in Gaza, the disenfranchised North African immigrants in France, even the legions of young who live in the splendid indolence and safety of the industrialized world, are all susceptible to war’s appeal.

== War is a crusade. President George W Bush is not shy about warning other nations that they stand with the United States in the war on terrorism or will be counted with those that defy us. This too is a jihad. Yet we Americans find ourselves in the dangerous position of going to war not against a state but against a phantom.

== When we ingest the anodyne of war we feel what those we strive to destroy feel, including the Islamic fundamentalists who are painted as alien, barbaric, and uncivilized. It is the same narcotic. I partook of it for many years.

== The attacks on the World Trade Center illustrate that those who oppose us, rather than coming from another moral universe, have been schooled well in modern warfare. The dramatic explosions, the fireballs, the victims plummeting to their deaths, the collapse of the towers in Manhattan, were straight out of Hollywood. Where else, but from the industrialized world, did the suicide hijackers learn that huge explosions and death above a city skyline are a peculiar and effective form of communication?

== Osama bin Laden has earned to speak the language of modern industrial warfare. It was Robert McNamara, the American Secretary of Defense in the summer of 1965, who defined the bombing raids that would eventually leave hundreds of thousands of civilians north of Saigon dead as a means of communication to the Communist regime in Hanoi. It is part of war’s perversity that we lionize those who make great warriors and excuse their excesses in the name of self-defense.

== As the battle against terrorism continues, as terrorist attacks intrude on our lives, as we feel less and less secure, the acceptance of all methods to lash out at real and perceived enemies will distort and deform our democracy. For even as war gives meaning to sterile lives, it also promotes killers and racists.

== Once we sign on for war’s crusade, once we see ourselves on the side of the angels, once we embrace a theological or ideological belief system that defines itself as the embodiment of goodness and light, it is only a matter of how we will carry out murder.

== War makes the world understandable, a black and white tableau of them and us. It suspends thought, especially self-critical thought. All bow before the supreme effort. We are one. Most of us willingly accept war as long as we can fold it into a belief system that paints the ensuing suffering as necessary for a higher good, for human beings seek not only happiness but also meaning. And tragically war is sometimes the most powerful way in human society to achieve meaning.

When the guns fall silent, the conflict just gets transferred, from the war-front to the home-front. Hedges refers to drugs, suicide, domestic violence and warped sexual relationships.

“War breaks down long-established prohibitions against violence, destruction and murder. And with this often comes the crumbling of sexual, social and political norms as the domination and brutality of the battlefield is carried into personal life. Rape, mutilation, abuse and theft at the natural outcome of a world in which force rules, in which human beings are objects.”

Finally, Hedges says he wrote the book “not to dissuade us from war but to understand it. It is especially important that we, who wield such massive force across the globe, see within ourselves the seeds of our own obliteration. We must guard against the myth of war and the drug of war that can, together, render us as blind and callous. as some of those we battle.

“The only antidote to ward off self-destruction and the indiscriminate use of force is humility and, ultimately, compassion. Reinhold Niebuhr aptly reminded us that we must all act and then ask for forgiveness. This book is not a call for inaction. It is a call for repentance.”

Soon after his book was published, Hedges was invited to deliver a commencement address at a US high school. To read what reaction he got, log on to: http://www.rrstar.com/localnews/your_community/rockford/20030520-4814.shtml